Making new friends, finding a niche and adjusting to life away from home are just some of the problems that await most new students at Michigan. But for freshmen Dwight Helminen, Eric Nystrom and Jason Ryznar, these problems have already been taken care of.
As the three stood on the ice together after last Friday”s Blue-White Intrasquad team scrimmage, they appeared to have everything under control. Their arms were draped around each other, and they wore grins that could swallow the world. No one could tell that their team had just lost the scrimmage 2-1.
All one could see was their collective excitement after finally playing in their first collegiate game.
At first glance, the three appear to be brothers. But Helminen is dwarfed by the 6-4 and 6-1 Ryznar and Nystrom. After watching the three fool around, one quickly realizes that while they may not be related by blood they are closer than most brothers will ever get.
They have met each other”s parents, and each know all that there is to know about the others. Nothing is a secret between the three and all jokes are fair game.
They even complete each other”s sentences.
“We know how each other play so we can rip on each other and it won”t hurt each others feelings,” Helminen said.
Nystrom agreed that friendship eases the communication between the three freshmen.
“I think there is more of a trust between the three of us because we”ve earned it from the past two years,” Nystrom said. “There”s a lot of respect between the three of us. That is something you have to earn.”
The three played together at the Ann Arbor Ice Cube on the U.S. National Team Development Program for two years. With everyone on the team spending time going to school, traveling and playing hockey together, it is easy to understand how they became so close.
Helminen, a speedy winger and scorer, and Nystrom, who likes to bang in front of the net, played on the same line last year and describe their relationship on the ice as a sixth sense.
“We know where we are at all times kind of like (Mark) Mink and (John) Shouneyia,” Nystrom said. “You play with someone for such a long time and you just know where they are at all times.”
Despite this fact, Nystrom ran head into 5-9 Helminen late in the third period as he was carrying the puck into the offensive zone. Later, Helminen shrugged and said he hadn”t gotten out of the way fast enough a credit to Nystrom”s speed.
Helminen, a quiet player who lets his actions do the talking, led the U.S. National Team in scoring last year with 64 points in 67 games. He also ranks first in career games played for the Development Team with 81 and third in assists with 44.
Nystrom is a gritty, physical player who prefers to work down low near the net. Last year he scored 15 goals for the Development Team while accumulating 32 points.
He has also shown durability as he only missed one game in his two years with the Development Team.
Not only is he outspoken and quick with a joke, Nystrom also has displayed leadership skills serving as the alternate captain last year. At 6-1, 194 pounds, it is difficult to ignore him on the ice either.
Ryznar, a soft-spoken and introspective Alaskan, plays bigger than the state he hails from. The 6-3, 204 pound forward is the biggest freshman on the team. Along with his mammoth numbers, Ryznar also has particularly soft hands and strong puck handling ability.
“I like to get in front of the net and work the corners,” Ryznar said.
Then Nystrom loudly interjected, “And fill up the water bottles. You like doing that too,”
But Ryznar is not ashamed of his special duties.
“Yeah, that has been my job for the past two years,” explained Ryznar in a modest voice. “I have kind of gotten used to it and I kind of like it.”
The Development Team is considered one of the top programs of its kind in the nation and is known for producing intelligent and mature players. Many of its players are highly sought after by college hockey coaches.
“Those National Team players come into college hockey and they are prepared to play at this level,” Nebraska-Omaha coach Mike Kemp said. “They have shown that they can play at this level playing against some college teams a year ago. You list them among the elite of the elite.”
As members of the Development Team, the three have played against other top college programs even before they got to Michigan giving them valuable experience over the other freshmen.
“It is good to see what it”s like,” Helminen said of the 12 college teams they played against last year. “Guys are bigger, stronger, faster and smarter.”
In some cases, the team even had success against top college programs. It was even able to upset Michigan State 6-4 last year. In that game, all three of the Michigan freshmen scored at least one point. Nystrom lead the team in scoring that game with three points and a crucial second period goal to tie the game at 3-3.
“You get out there and you realize these guys aren”t that good,” Ryznar said. “I mean we”ve seen them on television before. And once we scored that first goal, we realized “wow, we can score on them.”
“It got chippy towards the end. We thought we were going to lose 10-0. But after the second period it was a tie game, 4-4, we were like, “we might as well walk out of here and give it what we”ve got.””
How does one score on Michigan State”s Hobey Baker Award-winning goaltender Ryan Miller?
“Shoot the puck and hope it goes in,” Nystrom said. “But you got to crash the net, throw everything on net, get into him early. He”s a good goalie and it isn”t easy beating a good goalie.”
Neither has it escaped these freshmen what is expected of them or the similarities to the 1998 Wolverines that claimed the national title a team that received key contributions from several freshmen standouts.
“I think the supporters are some of the ones we have to prove ourselves to most too,” Nystrom said. “Some people are looking at this freshmen class and giving us good press, and I think we have to live up to that. The last time they won a national championship, they had 10 freshmen and the Regionals were here. So there is something eerie about that.”